For 'The Garden'



At 4:30 in the morning, most reasonable human beings can’t even find the strength to muster a curse word. Poets may claim that there’s something hauntingly beautiful about the way the low moon sinks over the purple hills of Western Pennsylvania. But when the alarm clock is going off at 4:30 a.m. in the middle of February, it’s just plain haunting.

Growing up, this was my weekend routine. Blame Super Mario.

In the darkness outside my bedroom window, my father’s 1988 Ford Bronco slept under a quilt of snow.  In my parents’ room, the alarm clock pulsated to Steely Dan. In mine, Metallica.

For myself and so many other Pittsburgh kids growing up during the Lemieux Era of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Saturday mornings weren’t for sleeping in and watching cartoons with a bowl of Cap'n Crunch. They were for shoveling a Snickers bar into your mouth on your way out the door to shovel your parent's truck out of the snow just for the privilege of making it to the rink on time for “suicide” skates at the plumber's crack of dawn.

With hockey exploding in popularity after the Penguins' back-to-back Stanley Cup wins in '91 and '92, all the reasonable practice slots at the handful of rinks around Pittsburgh were taken by high school and college teams. So, for all those mangy Pittsburgh kids trying to grow up to be like Jaromir Jagr, and consequently, trying to grow out an imitation of his astoundingly full-bodied hockey hair, weekend practices started at ungodly hours. It was brutal fun.


The price we paid to "Be Like Yagz."

 

My father and I would hop into his Bronco and the vents would kick out a mean gust of cold air. The equipment bag in the back of the car would smell of something unholy. Often we’d pick up a teammate and he would pile his own soggy gear into the trunk and the stench would elevate to preposterous levels.

Then we’d wind down the pine-lined back roads and cruise down the dark highway singing Back in Black tunes—white breathes pluming out from our zipped-up North Face jackets like we were smoking Marlborosand playing drum solos on the dashboard to keep warm.

After about 20 miles, just as the stale heat finally started to kick out of the vents in fits, we would see it. The big white dome on the hill; The mecca of hockey. The Rostaver Ice Garden. In reality, it resembled a third-world airplane hanger, but to every young hockey player in the ‘burgh, The Garden looked like our own Civic Arena.

The rink was home to countless youth teams in Westmoreland County, as well as high school teams like Elizabeth Forward, Thomas Jefferson and Serra Catholic. Pittsburgh-born NHL-exports like Ryan Malone and R.J. Umberger played there. The Penguins even held summer training camps at The Garden in the '70s.

Inside, the place had the ambiance of your grandparent's living room. Two stands of austere wooden plank bleachers and four walls lined with the sort of golden oak paneling last seen in Ward Cleaver’s den. The dressing rooms were not proper locker rooms with amenities like “heat” and “hooks,” but rather frozen meat lockers furnished with a couple wobbly benches. It would be so cold in the winter that visiting teams from upper-crust towns like Mt. Lebanon and Fox Chapel would bring their own portable generators in order to maintain a certain standard of living.


No offense, Fox Chapelites.

 

For us kids, the primitiveness of it all seemed to somehow add to the fun. We took pride in the squalor and called it “home ice advantage.” We wore our bruises like tattoos and our fledgling mullets flapped in the wind as we skated. Younger players would lose a baby tooth naturally and lie about how it got knocked out. “Got hit with a puck,” they'd grimace.

Anything that could bleed or bruise was a badge of honor. We looked at an alternative hobby like Little League baseball as if it was band camp with Gatorade and spandex pants.

The game of hockey—and especially rag-tag old rinks like The Garden—taught us young players plenty of life lessons.

Like preparation. As in: don’t take central heating for granted and always wear three layers.

And tolerance. As in: the referees might have to brandish flasks to keep warm, so accept your punishment in the penalty box and don’t argue, regardless of the ref’s blindness.

And class. As in: sometimes, you need to buck up and shake the hand of the adversary that tried to check you through a piece of Plexiglas just five minutes before.

But perhaps the best part about The Garden was its owner, Jim Murphy, who traded in a comfortable career as a white-collar executive to run the place. It was his dream, and rumor had it that "Murph" often slept in a little office in the back of the arena (he even drove the zamboni that cleaned the ice). Murph probably knew more about Pittsburgh's "Squirt" hockey teams than most of the city's beat reporters knew about Penguins.

After games, Murph would always be sitting near the snack shack in his Canadian tuxedo sipping a Styrofoam cup of coffee. He would never congratulate players on scoring a goal or winning a game. The only props anyone ever received from the Mayor of The Garden was a "Nice hustle out there, kid. Real nice hustle."

The Garden taught us that if you get knocked down three times, you get up four times, and you run the gauntlet again. The place was a haven of working class toughness. Of uncomplaining resiliency. Of no-questions-asked. It was a modest holdout; a stronghold on a hill that stood for something intangible that seems to be slipping out of our grasps in 21st century—both in this city and beyond.

This past Sunday afternoon, the wooden dome of the Ice Garden came crashing down during intermission of a youth hockey tournament that featured teams from as far away as Canada. But, characteristically, The Garden didn’t go down without putting up a fight. The trusses didn’t give way before wailing and creaking and trying to hold out—giving the 100 or people in attendance time to escape the building. Miraculously, no one was injured.

The near-tragedy might spell the end for the 45-year-old rink, and that is a real shame for the thousands of Pittsburghers who grew up playing there. Fortunately, there will always be hockey in this city. There will always be venues for 5 a.m. practices—some shiny and humanely insulated and freshly painted, with heated locker rooms and benches with cushions and snack bars that serve edible food.

As the Rostraver Ice Garden lies in a heap of tangled wood and steel and snow, it’s important not just to remember the cathedral of hockey that once stood—how it peaked over the snow-capped hills of the Monongahela Valley, or how it’s classic wooden dome made other rinks seem like frozen-over Wal-Marts. It’s more important that we remember the characters and warmth and lessons that once lived under that big arched roof.

And will continue to live on, no doubt.

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